Saturday, March 10, 2012

rubaiyat redux

Back in 2008 I wrote this ( about a folky club I used to go to with friends in Dallas way WAY back in my college days. Since then it has been fun to see who stops by and reads. I've had several folks share some memories with me. Not too long ago a Paul Kelso contacted me and we exchanged an email or two and he wrote the following reminiscence which I post with his permission. It's my hope that others may notice a tag or two and respond to add their own memories.

 "It was a sunny day in 1959 when I walked into the tiny store building that was to become the original Rubaiyat and the first folk music/coffee house in Dallas. I think it was in spring, because I was involved in opening the second, the Poet Restaurant, with actor Norman Smith, later that summer, also on McKinney Ave a few blocks toward downtown. The Poet was located in the front of the building housing the 90th Floor jazz room where Dick and Kiz Harp held forth for perhaps
a decade.

Ron Shipman rented the former neighborhood grocery and conceived of
the little music room based on west coast rooms. Ron was busy painting the walls
black and screwing together antique sewing machine tables to be placed in front
of the narrow benches along the walls. (Dallas artist Tom Motley would create
some intriguing wall art and other mood setters. He later taught at Richland).

I’m not sure of the dimensions of the room, maybe twelve wide and
forty deep. As you faced the back, you saw a tiny restroom in left rear corner,
small kitchen center and right rear, with a window looking out into the room.
In the window squatted a magnificent, belching, smoking Espresso machine.
The place did not have booze originally, that came later, if at all. There were
pastries and maybe little sandwiches later on.

The stage was just in front of the kitchen area, right center to right
wall. Ceiling spot. (Note: not sure what Mr. Kelso means here.)

I learned of Shipman and his project most likely through Lu Mitchell
and Hermes Nye of the Dallas Folklore Society. (I was raised out by SMU but
was a NTSU student then). Shipman was of course the house primary, full time
singer, but ran an open mic stage most of the time with many unpaid regulars
(including me) as well as the occasional pro from out of town.

One story is that Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was booked one weekend but
didn’t show till Saturday as a horse threw him a few days previous. He drove in
from New Mexico with a leg in a cast! I recall an excellent young Latino guy
whose name I cannot remember, who not only gave us the beautiful Mexican
traditional pieces but also belted out Leadbelly! I’m searching for his name.

Interesting sidebar is that of Herta Marshall, a pert little red head sponsored in town by Nye. (1960?). She appeared at the Rubaiyat several weekends. Previously married to Will Geer, who played Grandpa of The Waltons TV fame, she sang and acted for decades and appeared as one of the elderly wives in the Cocoon movies. Last I spoke to her—in the ‘80s—she ran a Shakespeare rep company in the northern hills of Los Angeles at Topanga. Her Folkways album as Herta Marshall: To You With Love: American Folk Songs For Women (1957), is still available.

People should remember that the “Beat” era was still strong in 1959.
Coffee house culture and protocol demanded silence while singers performed or
poets read, real art hung on the walls, and we all dreamed of doing a Jack
Kerouac and splitting for Algiers. That era should not be confused with the later
anti-Nam and flower child years.

A dozen coffee houses and folk or jazz joints quickly opened up and down McKinney after Ronnie. The legendary 90th Floor jazz room, (I think older than the Rubaiyat), and The Poet. The 8th Day, with floor to ceiling art carved into the walls and run by bros. Steve and Stan Crooks, which later was sold and became strictly gay, The Interlude, owned by Hank Arnold, where great jazz flute man Jimmy Clay played and Sherry Riley read jazz poetry on Sunday afternoons. The street became a “strip” with funky clothes shops, art galleries and studios and a Beat bookstore. Shipman could be said to have kicked off the Dallas “movement,” which was short lived as the Viet Nam years changed the atmosphere.

Local police did try to infiltrate the “scene,” but were easily spotted, as they couldn’t speak the ever-changing lingo. Of course they looked for drugs but to my knowledge availability or use on the street was slight.

The Dallas Morning News railed against us but used our fads and language in their ads to sell ‘with it’ products. The DMN also had apoplexy when Pete Seeger appeared in concert at the old Knox street theatre and, despite its efforts and that of the Birchers, couldn’t get him canceled.

I left for grad school at Iowa U in the fall of 1961. The Poet closed as Smith pursued acting. When I returned to Dallas for visits in the ‘70s or early ‘80s, I played one gig at the new Rubaiyat and visited several times to catch Frummox and others. The newer group of singers seemed to regard me as a relic from the past. I suppose that was true.

To get to a close, a little praise for Ron Shipman (he and Lu Mitchell still appear at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre sometimes), now living in Allen, Texas. He was and is a fine singer, more eclectic than straight folk, accomplished at calypso, and a good songwriter. Theodore Bickel bought and recorded one about eternity. Ron ground no political axe and, in truth, never was a “Beat”. He was just serenely determined to proceed despite many telling him his little venue on McKinney would surely fail, or that our kind of music would never succeed in Texas"

Paul Kelso


  1. I still get comments on this and one today asking about MMM (Michael Martin Murphy's Omar reference - "Who was Omar?" Here's this official explanation which I presume is what MMM was referring to:
    The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Persian: رباعیات عمر خیام‎) is the title that Edward FitzGerald gave to his translation of a selection of poems, attributed to Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), a Persian poet, mathematician and astronomer.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson on the first club I ever played. I was playing there at the end of Ron's reign, guys like Ray Hubbard, B.W.Stevenson & Steve Fromholz were in their hey day with occasional visits by Mike Murphy. It was fun to find your blog & take a trip down memory lane.
    Michael Ames

  3. I remember Ron Shipman's Rubiyat much as described including the belching expresso machine. One extra 'cool' place in a city that would later spawn 'Deep Elm'.

  4. I too was a regular player in 1963/1964. Heard some great renditions of folk tunes, blues, often originals. Best music was behind the building where the musicians jammed. Met the west coast painter/muralist John Wehrle who also played the Rubaiyat and - still a good friend of mine 50 years later As noted, many a fine musician played that scene. One of my favorites was Johnny Vandiver who was playing with Michael Murphy at the time. Years later I heard John Vandiver at Poor David's Pub and he played one of the best versions of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" that I've ever heard. Lots of fine memories. of music from the Rubaiyat.
    Bonnie "Boots" Levering

    1. Thanks for sharing and adding to the memories! Your time is a bit before mine but not much.

  5. I started going to the Rubaiyat in 1962 or 63; some friends of mine, John Clark (banjo) and Gari Ruggles (guitar) played there as The Balladeers. We heard Miss Vicki, a small singer with a great deep voice, singing a song about a foghorn in San Francisco. I remember John Deutschendorf sang there, before he chose the name John Denver. And Michael Martin Murphy, and Richard Marcus, playing a wonderful 12 string guitar. Ron Shipman was very good, and was the manager/owner. There was no beer served during the time I went, through maybe 1967, as I was in high school/college, and drinking age was still 21 in Texas. Great singers from many places--yes, I heard Lu Mitchell there some, and other places later. Thanks for the memories, Vince.